By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, education has really taken a hit. This is especially true in communities of color or in lower-income families, where the inability to access home computers and the internet has been widening the educational divide between the haves and the have-nots.
In this setting, it is worth highlighting a new educational program in Washington State that has likely flown under the radar. It is “Look, Listen and Learn,” a TV show for minority preschoolers. Its goal is to get young viewers ready for school.
LL+L’s specific medium is public television, which makes sense, because most homes have TVs before they have internet, and because it is the lowest cost. The host channels are the Seattle Channel and King County TV. LL+L episodes and promotional videos are also available on YouTube (22 videos as of December, where episodes are about 20 minutes long).
In perusing LL&L on YouTube, the first thing that strikes the viewer is how ethnically diverse the show’s host and most instructors and students are. They reflect the range of faces that one finds in Seattle’s Rainier Valley (zip code 98118) and its Chinatown-International District. In 2012, historylink.org described the Rainier Valley as “the most racially diverse zip code” in the US. (The valley has since slipped to second place, with the leading diversity zip moving 6 miles south to SeaTac, near the airport, as reported by niche.com).
According to public artist Erin Shigaki, who joined LL+L’s board at the start of 2020, the program showcases hosts of color, because only four percent of the TV personalities available in the pre-K space today are non-white.
Beyond first impressions, the adult viewer quickly finds that the varied LL+L instructors and guests play deeper roles besides being positive role models. They present life lessons that can only be taught effectively by instructors who can empathize with—and convey with authority—minority students’ issues at school.
The titles of episodes are telling:
“I’m the only possum in my class at school.”
“What does Black Lives Matter mean?”
Other, more general lessons are practical and timely, no matter the viewer’s ethnicity:
“Moving our bodies.”
“It’s okay to feel lonely.”
“Washing hands and wearing a mask.”
“Auntie Lena and Possum talk about flu shots.”
Still other lessons are deep. They dare to go where mainstream shows may not:
“Don’t touch my fur.”
In summary, those charged with keeping pre-K students busy all day at home these days would find the LL+L broadcasts and videos helpful additions to the cause.
In addition to LL+L’s primary mission as a teaching platform, the show offers a new multicultural volunteering venue for readers who have wondered what they can do to help right inequities in Washington. Supporting LL+L can take many forms.
The simplest approach, probably the easiest fit for busy individuals, would be to donate. Here, LL+L’s online December newsletter lists several Japanese-American community leaders we read about in these pages among its donors.
A second option is to serve on its board, like Erin and two other Asian Americans.
A third option, which might work for parents of pre-K children, is to sign up for your child to be filmed learning something. An example here is the boy who learns to make onigiri, from nutritionist Leika Suzumura, in “Loving myself.”
Leika teaches viewers to say, “Don’t yuck my yum.”
She means, don’t make fun of my school lunch of traditional food. My family makes it for me; it is part of who I am. Instead, try a bite, and see if you like it!
For community organizations, a fourth opportunity is to become a “collaborator” or “partner.” Commonly, it involves allowing the LL+L crew to film in your organization’s space. Such collaborators and partners include Denise Louie Education Center, Seattle Public Libraries, the Wing Luke Asian Museum, and the Woodland Park Zoo.
Like any new nonprofit project, LL&L is not perfect. It is still a developing work in progress. Its oldest YouTube video is only a year old.
Probably LL+L’s greatest challenge is that each episode costs $30,000 to produce, according to Executive Producer Val Thomas-Matson. The reason is that this is simply what it costs to make a TV show, even when most participants are doing so at “friendly” rates. Accordingly, Thomas-Matson had to humbly ask her friend Leika if she could be filmed as a volunteer.
A second challenge is LL+L’s reach. At this writing, only 439 subscribers follow its YouTube channel.
Exploring the viewership further, downloading YouTube episode viewer-counts into an Excel spreadsheet shows relatively few viewers, as of late December. If one subtracts three promotional videos from the 22 available, 19 instructional videos remain, which vary in age from one to 12 months since posting. Yet, the average number of views per episode was only 82 per month.
Still, the late December view totals were 9881, and are additive. That is, older episodes keep “working” while new ones are added.
Stepping back from details to the big picture, all of us have to admire Executive Producer Val Thomson-Matson, for giving it a go. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the children’s educational program that set the bar during 1962-2001, had to start somewhere. The same is true of “Sesame Street” (1969-present).
Multiple Seattle Japanese-American community thought leaders also know and think highly of Thomson-Matson. According to Erin, Val overlapped with her sister, Joy Shigaki, when both worked for King County Executive Ron Sims.
Erin describes Val as “so dynamic and amazing.”
Lori Matsukawa remembers Val as “joyful, sensitive, and concerned about the self-esteem of black folks, especially children,” when Val was a production assistant at KING5.
There, Thompson-Matson also worked with Eugene Tagawa. Other JAs worked with her at Shoreline School District.
We can also learn a lot about how people think by how they write. Two excerpts from an email from Thomson-Matson read:
“The looks I get when I say that ‘I’m doing a version of a Mr. Rogers show’ are often questioning. Folks look at me wondering, ‘Does she know that she’s not a white male, like Mr. Rogers, what the heck could she be thinking?’
“Folks aren’t quite able to see a Black Woman managing this type of business… Therefore, I have to tuck my pride aside and view the long game of LL+L’s mission so that the content of our work is what spurs our children on to be their brightest selves and not be thwarted by their race and gender. And that is sweet, motivating, and empowering…
“In Washington, Black and Indigenous children continue to enter school not ready to learn at the rates of white children.* Since this travesty isn’t being addressed adequately by our systems, it’s up to us in the community to construct avenues to help our children and families get excited about learning and discovery, so that they enter school ready to learn, ready to thrive, and ready to bring their greatest attributes to this nation’s troubled ways.
“*The school readiness and achievement gap in Washington State is prominent among Black, Native and Spanish-speaking children.”
Most tellingly, the credits of the “Loving myself” onigiri episode lists Thomson-Matson as the lead writer of the insightful lesson. The writing is exceptional.
The main thing is that a major project like LL+L is larger than any one ethnic community can hope to launch and sustain. The lesson of Keiro Northwest, a nursing home that closed in 2019, is that Seattle Nikkei need to learn to partner better with other groups to pull off large, worthwhile projects.
In turn, 2020 taught us that we cannot simply continue to live solely within our own, semi-isolated ethnic enclaves. We all need to make a little more effort to reach out, beyond our comfortable boundaries, to raise up Greater Seattle, King County, and Washington. LL+L offers a new opportunity to do this, through participating in and supporting a movement that is part of a larger whole.
Editor’s note. Preparation of this article was funded under a grant from Solutions Journalism Network, which encourages journalists to report on programs and individuals that are fixing society’s woes instead of merely describing them.